"I used to think it would take a great financial crisis to get both parties to the table, but we just had one," said G. William Hoagland, a former adviser to the Senate Republican leadership on fiscal policy.
"These days, I wonder if this country is even governable."
Quoted in The New York Times' lead story, "Party Gridlock Feeds New Fear of a Debt Crisis," Hoagland nailed it.
America faces a crisis of democracy.
At its heart is a fiscal crisis. After the 2009 deficit of $1.4 trillion, we are running a 2010 deficit of $1.6 trillion. Trillion-dollar deficits are projected through the Obama years, be they four or eight.
Long before 2016, however, holders of U.S. public debt will stop buying Treasury bills or start demanding higher interest rates to cover the growing risk of a default.
This week, a smoke detector went off. China, in December, had unloaded $45 billion of its $790 billion in T-bills. Is Beijing is bailing out?
To assure the world we are not Greece writ large, the United States must soon adopt a visible plan for slashing the deficit.
There are three ways to do it. One is through growth that increases the tax revenue flowing into the Treasury and reduces the outflow for safety net programs like unemployment insurance.
But growth only comes slowly and can take us only so far.
Needed is a combination of big budget cuts and tax hikes. But the only place one can get budget cuts of the magnitude required is from the big entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And the only place to get revenue of that magnitude is by raising taxes on the American middle class.
And here is where Barack Obama hits the wall.
Republicans are not going to give him a single vote for a tax increase. Not only would this violate a commitment most made to the people who elected them, it would be politically suicidal. For behind the GOP today, and its best hope of recapturing Congress in 2010, are the Tea Party irregulars.
And Tea Partiers now play the role of Red Army commissars who sat at machine guns behind their own troops to shoot down any soldier who retreated or ran. Republicans who sign on to tax hikes cannot go home again.